Byte, January 1988: Even as late as
1988 – and beyond – the 'back of the
book' of computer magazines is where
you went to find ...
... systems (click to enlarge) ...
... peripherals (click to enlarge) ...
... bargains (click to enlarge) ...
... and even ICs (click to enlarge)
The incredible shrinking magazine
During the halcyon days of computer magazines, those "books" as they're called in the trade, were massive affairs, stuffed to the gills with adverts and editorial copy. As mentioned above, the same month that Time consecrated the personal computer as The Machine of the Year, Byte weighed in at 544 pages. That was no anomaly – the following month its page count was 538.
PC Magazine published two issues in January 1987 that totaled 718 pages. The more narrowly targeted MacUser topped out a couple of years later at 410 pages, and the behemoth Computer Shopper was so massive that New York postmen rebelled at having to deliver multiple copies to office blocks.
Things have changed. The current issue of Macworld is 114 pages and PCWorld has shrunk to a mere 104. But at least they still exist. Byte ceased dead-tree publication in July 1998 and PC Magazine, God rest its hard-copy soul, hung on all the way to January 2009 (both live on in online form, however).
Don't simply blame the internet. To be sure, the ability for publications to use inexpensive electrons rather than expensive atoms brought massive efficiency improvements, but there were other factors that tolled the death knell for chubby ad-filled magazines that delivered customers to advertisers.
Remember, mags don't earn all that much from newsstand sales – especially in the US – and subscribers are sought solely to put eyeballs in front of advertisers. Many of those advertisers eventually abandoned computer magazines.
One of the factors that led to that hasty departure can be found by picking up any computer magazine from the Machine of the Year era, and reading it from its final page. For dozens of pages you'll find ad after ad after ad in what was known as "the back of the book" – product-packed pages from mail-order vendors flogging their wares.
"BoB" was a marvelously inexpensive way for those vendors to get the word out about their low, low prices – but it couldn't last. After a vendor made a sale, they had in their possession the most valuable of marketing commodities: the customer's address.
When a vendor gathered enough addresses, it dropped out of BoB and published its own catalog on its own schedule, not bound by a magazine's calendar – or its advertising rate card. Catalogs were more efficient, and mail-order vendors that employed them sucked customers away from vendors still wallowing in BoB. Customers won, some vendors disappeared, and magazines suffered.
Another reason computer magazines faltered was the simple fact that reviews became less and less necessary; most products became quite reliable and their categories became commodified. As a product tester at MacUser in the 1980s, I remember a hard drive that caught fire and a CRT monitor that imploded, impressive product failures that are vanishingly rare these days. In those days, to twist an old saying, our job was to separate the wheat from the crap – and believe me, there was plenty of the latter.
More advertisers vaporized when vendor consolidation decimated the number of those either willing or able to pay for ad space. At MacUser I remember a well-tested comparison of 101 hard drives of 80 megabytes and up. Are there now enough major vendors to supply even a fraction of that number of different products? Nope.
Computer magazines also became less important to newbies. Compared with the early 1980s, computers became increasingly simple to use. Your average personal computer user turns his or her machine on and uses it, then shuts it down without an instant's thought about how it works, how it could be improved, or whether they could benefit from tips 'n' tricks to enhance its effectiveness.
"Good enough" won.
And then came the internet, and with it the one-two punch of email and the worldwide web. As more customers logged on, catalog-publishing mail-order vendors were presented with a trifecta of value: first, by moving their catalogs to the web, they could benefit from the aforementioned atoms-versus-electrons efficiencies; second, they could more nimbly change their prices, target specific geographies, and gain minute-by-minute control over their customer-facing operations.
And third is that all-important customer relationship. With targeted email, customer forums and support offerings, individualized offers, and so on, the fresh and vivacious internet seduced the fickle customer away from its old flame, the once-exciting but now rather dowdy computer rag.
Oh, and deep-pocket display-ad types? They no longer needed mags at all, now that they could better display their wares on their own websites, plus enjoy all the customer-relationship benefits of the mail-order folks. The big money walked.
Times change. And Time changed. In 1999, that magazine – still in good ol' print to this day, by the way – retired its Man of the Year title and replaced it with the more-inclusive Person of the Year. The first winner of that revised award was a man whose impact could not have been made without the roaring success of the personal computer: Amazon's Jeff Bezos.
The computer had moved in, indeed. ®
C/PM Computing (maybe), 1983 (or so):
This ad was shot at the Exploratorium
science museum in San Francisco in
the early 1980s, too long ago for me
to remember in what year or what
magazine it ran. (click to enlarge)
A few pages back I teased David Bunnell, then-publisher of PCWorld and Macworld, about his oh-so-80s glasses. Well, I lived through that period as well, and committed far more than my allotted share of egregious fashion faux pas.
Check out the skinny chap in the ad for CompuPro S-100 business systems to the right – the blonde in the white bell-bottoms and black Members Only jacket with the rolled-up sleeves. That's your Reg reporter at age 32. Or was it 33?
The early days of PCs as seen through DEAD TREES
Interesting, but it would have been good to cover the British mags instead... I don't remember any of these hitting our shores!
I was quite an avid fan of mags like Amstrad Action, Amiga Format and PC rags like Computer Shopper...
It was a bad day when BYTE hit the dust, that tending to me a more in depth and computer science-y magazine than almost everything else. The American PC World wasn't bad either. I was sad to see Personal Computer World just stop publishing though - they should have gone out with a great retro finale edition, but they just stopped :(
I still have a big pile of 1980s and 1990s BYTEs and PCWs stuffed in a box upstairs. Especially in the early 1980s, they came with really beautiful cover artwork, especially BYTE.
>Three words: "IS UNIX DEAD?!??!" (extra punctuation added by me)
Linux was still a newborn at that time, and The BSDs had just overcome a huge legal battle. The commercial UNIXes were all proprietary and considerably expensive. It wasn't out of the question at the time that MS was going to kill UNIX as it was (and it did). BYTE at the time followed MS since that's where the money was. Even back then they realized that IBM/OS2 wasn't going to dominate the market. Between 86 and 97 Apple management turned gold in to poo.
In hindsight Microsoft did kill UNIX at the time, with lower hardware costs, cheaper licensing, and letting a large amount of piracy occur. They didn't win by making more reliable software, that's for sure. It wasn't Linux became popular that Microsoft considered any of the Unixlike operating systems a serious threat.
the one I used from 1972 on
Each time I see a history of the personal computer I find that almost no one knows how it really began.
In 1972 both HP and Wang developed and sold a PC fully capable of programming in Basic and operating fully on the desktop. The HP unit even offered a letter quality printer (converted Facit typewriter), a high speed thermal printer (250 lpm and silent) plus an IO bus capable of addressing up to 15 IO devices including plotters, card readers and more. Even a modem.
It also offered a hard disc using a controller that would support two hard disc drives and four desktop units.
All from HP. Fully supported by HP.
Now you can get picky and claim it was not a microprocessor. And it was not. But, if you could program in Basic you could have it do just about anything you needed on the desktop. I did. Financial analysis. Word processing. You name it. It was a personal computer to the full extent of the meaning.
Yet, history is lost. Actually not quiet. See the HP museum web site. Look for the HP 9830A unit. Never even had a floppy disc because the technology was not yet developed and reliable enough. But, it did have a hard disc available.
I programmed one and had it fully operational in a law office by 1974.
Sorry for going all the way back. But, it was fun and commercial.
No mention of the C64/Amiga
A bit ridiculous really. The C64 knocked the socks off the Apple crap, and as for the Amiga... Well it was the most mind blowing computer ever but unfortunately we all know how that ended up. But as they say, it's always the victors that write the history.. :/
Also... define 'PC' in the 80s please. I mean we're not necessarily talking IBM clones here.